When NFL training camps opened in July 2018, many of the league’s biggest names steered clear. Le’Veon Bell, Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, and Earl Thomas all refused to show up due to qualms with their contracts.
Bell never reported, opting instead to sit out an entire season after the Steelers franchised him in back-to-back years.
Donald’s holdout ended with a record-breaking contract from the Rams. And Mack’s ended when he was traded from the Raiders to the Bears and subsequently given the blockbuster deal he wanted too.
Thomas reluctantly showed up without a new contract from the Seahawks and wasn’t shy about voicing his displeasure — most notably when he suffered a broken leg early in the 2018 season that ended his time in Seattle.
There isn’t quite the same level of star power on the list of holdouts this summer. But skipping training camp is a common, and usually effective, tactic. A few players are giving it a shot.
Here are the 2019 training camp absentees, and the notable players who opted against a holdout.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Texans
The No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft may not be the unstoppable sack machine that many expected him to be, but Clowney has emerged as a perennial Pro Bowler. He’s valuable enough that the Texans gave him a franchise tag that guarantees him $15.967 million in 2019.
That’s a good pay day for Clowney. The problem is that it lacks long-term security and is below market value for the position.
Clowney got things started by sitting out offseason workouts, but the only date that mattered was July 15. That was the deadline for franchised players to sign an extension and he didn’t get one.
Now, a training camp holdout is a bit of an exercise in futility for Clowney. It’s a (perfectly justifiable) protest of the tag, but — barring a trade — can’t yield a new contract.
It didn’t help negotiations when the Texans fired general manager Brian Gaine in June and bungled their attempts to replace him. That left interim general manager Chris Olsen and coach Bill O’Brien about a month to work on a deal with Clowney.
Until Clowney signs his franchise tender, the Texans won’t be able to fine him for missing training camp practices. With no deal done in July, it’s logical to assume Clowney takes a while to show up in August.
Jacksonville appears to have prioritized an extension for Ngakoue ahead of a deal for cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
That makes sense, considering both were drafted in 2016 but Ramsey was the first-round pick. That means he had a fifth-year option on his contract that keeps him locked up through the 2020 season. Ngakoue is entering the last year of his rookie deal, so his contract situation is a more immediate hurdle for the Jaguars to clear.
In three seasons with the Jaguars, Ngakoue has 29.5 sacks and one trip to the Pro Bowl. That kind of production should put him in the same tier as Demarcus Lawrence, Frank Clark, Trey Flowers, and Dee Ford — each of whom got a pricy five-year deal in 2019 that averaged between $17.1 and $21 million.
A training camp holdout has started, and he may be the player on this list who’s likeliest to drag his contract dispute into September, although the Jaguars haven’t been shy about offering big money.
Chris Jones, DT, Chiefs
Kansas City did some high-stakes tinkering with its pass rush during the offseason, shipping Dee Ford to the 49ers and filling his role by trading for Frank Clark. But the real centerpiece of the Chiefs’ defense is Jones, who had 15.5 sacks in 2018.
With his contract expiring after the 2019 season, Jones skipped offseason practices this spring. The Chiefs responded to the absence by playing hardball.
The good news for the Chiefs is that Jones has a reason to show up shortly after training camp opens. If he’s not in camp by Aug. 6, he’d be set to reach restricted free agency next year rather than unrestricted free agency.
Camp opens for the Chiefs on July 24, so Jones will be rolling the dice if he isn’t there within the first couple weeks. That makes a holdout much less likely to happen, but not impossible. Aaron Donald faced the same situation in 2018 and blew through the deadline in pursuit of a new contract.
He still didn’t show up until the Rams gave him a record-breaking deal on the last day of August. It wouldn’t be that surprising if Jones followed in Donald’s footsteps.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Chargers
Los Angeles is in the thick of contention thanks in part to the ageless play of Philip Rivers, but he’s without a key component of his offense in training camp.
Gordon has been a big part of the Chargers’ offensive revival, recording nearly 4,400 yards from scrimmage the past three seasons. He’s also been a bit unreliable due to injury — he’s only played one full 16-game campaign in his four-year career. He’s currently on the hook for $5.6 million in the fifth year of his rookie contract, but made just under $5 million for the four years preceding it.
His contract demand was a little surprising, but it makes sense. Gordon comes into 2019 with some leverage after making a leap in 2018; his yards-per-carry average rose from a career mark of 3.8 to 5.1 as Los Angeles rose from the outside of the postseason picture and into a spot in the Divisional Round last January. He also contributed a career-high 4.2 catches per game, playing a massive role as headache-reliever for his aging quarterback.
The Chargers have an estimated $39 million in cap space to spend next spring, but a chunk of that will likely be devoted to Rivers, whose contract is up at the end of the year. Players like Joey Bosa and Keenan Allen will also need to be dealt with soon. If the club thinks Gordon’s jump in efficiency last fall isn’t sustainable, it may hold strong against Gordon’s holdout threat. But given the young tailback’s importance to LA’s offensive identity, the flexibility he brings, and the team’s likely need to keep Rivers happy it seems an extension could be in line this summer.
Trent Williams, OT, Washington
Williams signed a huge extension in 2015, but the guaranteed money has been paid, and his contract is down to its final two years. Now Williams wants more.
He’s not in a bad spot with $11 million and $12.5 million in base salary for the next two years. But many offensive tackles have shifted the market in the last few years and Williams — who turns 31 in July — is running out of time to get another blockbuster deal.
Williams explained his absence from offseason practices in a meeting with team president Bruce Allen.
“I’ve talked to Trent a few times,” Allen told NBC Sports. ”He’s explained some things to me and I’ll leave it at that.”
Part of Williams’ complaint is reportedly due to frustration with the Washington medical staff. Williams had a growth on his head surgically removed, and coach Jay Gruden told reporters that the offensive tackle “wished the diagnosis had come a little sooner” from team doctors.
While Williams has been to seven consecutive Pro Bowls, he hasn’t completed a 16-game season since 2013. Most recently, he missed three games in 2018 due to thumb and rib injuries, and six games in 2017 due to a knee injury. Washington struggled to deal with the absence, and now has rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins to protect.
Still, the team probably won’t be keen to giving Williams another extension when he has two years left on the last one.
Now it’s just a question of how long he’ll sit out and whether Washington will consider a new deal for its left tackle to get him back in camp.
Michael Thomas, WR, Saints
Not many people were expecting Thomas to hold out. Mostly because he was adamant all offseason that it’s not his style.
“I’m a football player first — I like being at work.” Thomas told ESPN in May. “I feel pretty certain that everything will get taken care of and handled professionally. This is how I approach the game and how I show up to work the same way, and everything else will take care of itself.”
So even though he’s a surprising member of the holdout club, don’t expect a standoff anything close to Le’Veon Bell’s with the Steelers.
But Thomas is due to make a laughably low $1.148 million for the 2019 season. He’s emerged as one of the NFL’s most elite receivers, and is headed into the last year of his rookie contract.
No player has more receptions than Thomas in the last three seasons and he wants a mega deal that reflects that level of production. He, too, will want to eclipse Beckham’s $18 million per year. Thomas might also be interested in waiting to see how the contract situation of Jones is resolved in Atlanta.
For now, there’s still negotiating to do, although the gap between the two sides has closed:
In the time since Thomas spoke to reporters in May, his teammate Cameron Jordan got a three-year, $52.5 million extension. Thomas is likely to get his deal relatively soon, but weeks of negotiations with New Orleans has yet to produce a deal. It’d makes sense that he wants to establish a sense of urgency before the 2019 regular season begins.
Robbie Gould, K, 49ers
There aren’t many examples of kickers holding out, but Gould made it clear that San Francisco isn’t a place he wants to be. He requested a trade in April and told the 49ers that he won’t negotiate a long-term deal ahead of the July 15 deadline for an extension.
Kickers are often cogs that are easy to replace, but Gould has some leverage after leading the NFL in field goal percentage in 2019 by nailing 33 of his 34 tries. That was enough to more than double the average annual salary of his last contract and make him one of the highest paid specialists in the game this fall.
The 49ers were able to change Gould’s mind and avoid a holdout by inking him to a four-year deal to stay in the Bay Area.
That resolved the issue before it ever reached training camp.
Bobby Wagner, LB, Seahawks
As far as holdouts go, Wagner’s hunt for a new contract has been as amicable as possible. The linebacker chose against practicing in OTAs, but still showed up at the facility and participated without going on the field.
“He handled it beautifully,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told reporters, via 247Sports. “Bobby’s an incredible player in this program. Everything that he does, his presence is obvious. He’s been around for everything. He’s been involved with everything and he’s handled it exactly the way he should under these circumstances.”
Things may get a little more contentious when it gets closer to the season, though. Wagner is arguably the best linebacker in the NFL, but now he has serious leverage for a pay raise thanks to C.J. Mosley. The Jets gave Mosley a five-year contract that averages $17 million per year — waaaaay more than Luke Kuechly’s $12.36 million average that previously reigned as the top salary for an inside linebacker.
Wagner is entering the final year of his contract and remains an integral part of the Seahawks. The defense has undergone a transformation in the wake of the Legion of Boom’s demise, and Wagner’s been the player who has held the unit together through the transition.
But it’s going to be a tough negotiation, thanks in no small part to Mosley’s outlier of a contract.
Wagner’s expected to show up, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll fully participate. His previous strategy of staying off the practice field could extend into training camp too.
For now, he belongs in this bottom tier of non-holdouts, but that could still change depending on his participation.
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons
The Falcons placated Jones last year when he opted to skip out on the beginning of training camp. While the star receiver didn’t get the huge contract he was aiming for, the Falcons shifted money around on the deal to give him more money in 2018.
“We have come to an agreement with Julio, and we will re-address everything in 2019,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said in a statement at the time.
Well now it’s well into 2019 and the contract still hasn’t been re-addressed. There was a report in April that a deal was close to finished, but nothing came of that. Jones then sat out OTAs, setting the table for a training camp holdout. Instead, he showed up.
After five straight Pro Bowl seasons with at least 1,400 receiving yards each, Jones isn’t going to come cheap. He’ll probably want a contract that eclipses the $18 million per year that was awarded to Odell Beckham Jr. last year.
There’s not much reason to believe the Falcons won’t pay up, so Jones trusted that he didn’t need to steer clear.
Darius Slay, CB, Lions
On the list of underpaid players coming up on the end of their contracts, Slay is in a different situation. He signed an extension in 2016 and still has two years left with base salaries of $12.55 million and $10 million on the way.
Since signing that deal, Slay has been to the Pro Bowl two times while several other cornerbacks got more lucrative contracts. He’s also gone through the guaranteed portions of the deal.
Now Slay’s angling for another contract that pays him like the elite cornerback that he is and gives him some security. And threatening to skip some of training camp was part of his strategy.
“Will I be there?” Slay said of training camp on a podcast in June, via the Detroit Free Press. “We’ll see. Time will tell.”
With two years left on his deal, Detroit doesn’t need to do Slay any favors and restructure it. But the Lions are also sitting pretty with over $23 million in cap space and can afford to kick one of their best players a little more. It just doesn’t look like it’s going to happen this year.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys
In three seasons in Dallas, Elliott has clearly lived up to his top five draft status — even if he’s had a few off-field incidents raise issues. He’s averaged 101.2 rushing yards per game with 28 touchdowns and two trips to the Pro Bowl. Keep in mind, Jim Brown is the only player to ever average more than 100 rushing yards per game over the course of his career.
It seems inevitable that Elliott will be made the highest-paid running back in the NFL at some point. For now though, he’s stuck in the same boat as Jared Goff and Jalen Ramsey — two other top five picks from 2016 who aren’t a top priority because of the fifth-year option on their rookie contracts.
The Cowboys are preoccupied with locking down Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, but Elliott wants his discounted salary addressed. He privately said earlier in the summer that would hold out of training camp unless he gets a new contract, according to Pro Football Talk.
The other players in line for a contract in Dallas means he probably won’t get a deal soon. It may be in his best interest to see how Gordon’s negotiation with the Chargers goes anyway.
Duke Johnson, RB, Browns
Johnson is on the hunt for a new uniform more than a new contract. The Browns running back says his goal is “to be somewhere [where he’s] wanted.”
The Browns — like the 49ers with Robbie Gould — haven’t been very receptive of the request:
Johnson is currently set to be Nick Chubb’s backup in Cleveland, and his touches will likely decline when an eight-game suspension for Kareem Hunt is up. Johnson finished the 2018 season with just 40 rushing attempts, despite averaging 5.0 yards per carry. He contributed a little more in the pass game with 47 receptions, but that was down from 74 receptions in 2017.
While his trade demands haven’t gone anywhere, Johnson showed up for minicamp and now training camp too.
His presence at training camp doesn’t mean he’s happy with his situation in Cleveland, though.